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The story’s central figure is Father Laforgue, who is chosen to replace an ailing priest heading a mission in a remote Indian village.Laforgue sets forth on a river journey in the company of an Algonkin tribe traveling to its winter hunting grounds.Just as the whites see the Native Americans' belief in a spirit world in nature as a childish superstition, the indigenous people view Christianity as nonsense.
Among the French, the Jesuits have as their sole purpose the conversion of the Native Americans to Christianity.
The French, including the priests, view the Native Americans as "savages," and this is the term used for them throughout the narrative.
As a dismayed Laforgue sees his young change rapidly adopting the customs of the Algonkin, his own safety is threatened when the tribal chief dreams that the priest’s presence is a danger to his people.
Although Laforgue and his journey provide the central thread for the novel’s narrative structure, Moore balances its point of view between the Jesuits, who refer to the Indians as “the Savages,” a term that accurately describes the French view of tribal life, and the Algonkin themselves, who regard the Jesuits, or “Black-robes,” as unnatural witches, ignorant of the powerful spirits which the Indians see at work in the natural world.
Brian Moore's novel is an examination of the culture clash between the French and the Native Americans in Canada in the early 1600s.
The plot concerns a mission to transport the Jesuit priest Father Laforgue upriver to a Huron village as a replacement for an ailing priest already resident there.
Though the Algonquin are allies of the French, the manner in which they live is shocking to Laforgue—the communal habitations in which they sleep crowded together along with their dogs, the undisciplined way the children are allowed to act, the sexual freedom of the adults, and so on.
The Algonquin, on the other hand, think the Europeans inferior both physically and mentally.
In the first chapter alone, Moore incorporates four points of view, including that of the famed French explorer, Samuel de Champlain, who heads the Quebec settlement.
Later chapters are told from the viewpoint of several of the Indians, thus presenting their own interpretations of the Jesuits’ actions and their tribal beliefs in spirits of the natural world.